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Students clean up family cemetery in Lilburn

LILBURN - Of course, Jennifer Taylor knew there would be headstones. After all, she was cleaning a cemetery.

But that didn't stop her from jumping when she raked away a pile of dead leaves to find herself standing on top of a raised plot of land at the headstone's base.

"I didn't exactly know they would be so shallow, that we could actually see where the body's buried," she said. "That kind of freaked me out."

Jennifer, an eighth grader at Trickum Middle School, is part of a group called DUCT TAPE - Disciples Under Construction Transforming Through Advocacy, Prayer and Encouragement - that performs various community services. There are about 15 members who are also members of Pilgrimage Presbyterian Church.

Saturday morning, the group was piling leaves onto tarps and carting them away from the small cemetery across the street from their church, where about 15 members of the Matthews family are buried.

Alice McCabe, of the Gwinnett Historical Society, said the family helped found the city of Lilburn and had a house there since 1824. Most of the plots in the cemetery are from the 1860s and 1870s, she said.

The seven marked graves include the Rev. Thomas Matthews, who died May 9, 1878, and is buried next to 2-year-old Amanda E. Matthews. Elizabeth R. Matthews, who died in 1879, is believed to be the reverend's second wife. Seven or eight unmarked graves are also in the cemetery.

Flanked by a parking lot and a soccer field, it takes a lot of looking to find the headstones at the back of a lightly wooded plot of land. Sara Verburg, the church's youth minister, said she had no idea the cemetery was there until someone else mentioned that it could use a cleaning.

Verburg speculated that some of the unmarked graves may have belonged to the family's slaves, but McCabe thought they were buried too close to be anything but family. She said there are more than 400 small cemeteries in Gwinnett County alone, and it's important that groups help maintain them.

Holly Harris, a Parkview sophomore, said she likes learning about the lives of the people buried in the cemetery while she cleans it.

"I like knowing we're actually making a difference," she said.

Jennifer said she was helping in the cemetery to make sure the people buried there got the respect that they deserved in death.

"If you just let it go to waste, it doesn't really remind you who the people were," she said. "They were alive, and now they're here."